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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Queen, "Queen II"

"Queen II"
Parlophone (1974)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Was there ever really an album titled "Queen"? Perhaps. But it certainly didn't make any big noise in the British and American music markets. Then again, not many aficionados are that aware of the existence of "Queen II" either, and that is a mistake (sorry "Queen," you can be safely relegated to the dustbin of history. "II" cannot).

The band's second album is where the modern Queen was born. Production on the group's debut record was rushed, but the band got full access to Trident's recording toys when it entered the studio for the follow-up (which, as drummer Roger Taylor lamented, had a rather unimaginative title). The elements that brought out the true identity of Queen weren't Freddie Mercury's rock-god vocals, Brian May's enormous-sounding power chords, or lyrics about battling ogres; these things were present on "Queen" (or at least variants, in the latter case). What truly changed the sound of Queen was the ability to overdub.

Anyone familiar with Queen's single biggest song, "Bohemian Rhapsody," understands that the band's sound was unique because it packed a rock opera into every track. "Rhapsody" is an exceptional example because of its multiple chapters and pace changes, but the groundwork to the epic sound is laid out on "Queen II." Mercury, May and Taylor all contribute vocals, but that's not enough to complete their vision. Instead, nearly every song features vocal overdubs and harmonies that give the impression of a backing chorus along for the ride. "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" best exemplifies the vocal aspect of the band's approach.

The multi-tracking doesn't stop at vocals however. May, as mentioned before, has a tendency for huge power chords. The trick was to make his solos sound just as large. The guitarist used the same overdubbing strategy on tracks like "The White Queen (As It Began)" and "Some Day One Day" to feature himself playing up to three overlapping solos at one time, giving the grand finales to the tracks an orchestral feel. By doubling up on multiple instruments, "Ogre Battle" was given the effect of warfare being waged.

The band's approach to "Queen II" has generated plenty of fodder for argument amongst critics. The album was never one of the group's biggest sellers, having only one single ("Seven Seas of Rhye"), but musicians including Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins have cited its stylistic influence. Others, including Robert Christgau, have lamented it as overblown. Personally, I salute the album for opening the band up to the sound that would make it famous. However, it truly is over-the-top at points. I have levied the same complaint at modern artists like Surfjan Stevens in my reviews, and I would argue that much of "Queen II" is just too much.

Unlike some of the other albums on this blog that I have given the thumbs-down however, this album is palatable when looking at Queen's entire discography. The band learned from the knocks that critics dealt "Queen II" and perfected the craft of the rock opera later down the line.

INTERESTING FACT: Brian May is renowned for his guitar-of-choice, Red Special. May and his father built the instrument in 1963, and he continues to record and play it on tour. He, of course, markets replicas and plays knock-offs in situations where it could potentially be damaged.

White Queen by Queen on Grooveshark

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